Charles de Lint,
Quicksilver & Shadow
(Subterranean Press, 2004)

Subterranean Press continues to reveal the early writings of Charles de Lint in this, the publisher's second collection of short stories from the early days of the writer's career. And, while the stories contained in Quicksilver & Shadow are nowhere as detailed or deep as his later works, de Lint shows remarkable growth from the style (and, let's face it, genre choices) exhibited in the previous collection, A Handful of Coppers.

This volume, containing 17 brief tales, focuses on contemporary and dark fantasy, science fiction and children's stories. The best-known among them are doubtlessly the three from Terri Windling's much-lamented Bordertown anthologies: "Stick," "Berlin" and "May This Be Your Last Sorrow."

For those lonely souls unfamiliar with this excellent but short-lived series of short-story collections, Bordertown is the city where, just a few decades from now, the border between our world and Elfland will have weakened -- a place where magic and technology clash, where elves and humans interact on a daily basis. De Lint was one of many fine authors to dabble in the stories that grew out of that town; the first two stories focus on Stick, an honorable, self-appointed protector of the innocent, while the third is a brief monologue from a runaway -- who isn't quite as alone as she thinks.

Like many of de Lint's fiction, these tales dig deeply into social issues such as drug use, gang violence and prejudice while retaining a touching personal relationship with the characters involved -- and, at the same time, providing plenty of gripping suspense among spurts of fast-paced action. Stick is one of Bordertown's great figures, and the Horn Dance one of its best quirky groups. For these and other reasons, the rich, real world of the Bordertown is still sorely missed today.

Quicksilver & Shadow begins with stories from the contemporary and dark fantasy genre. Of these, the best is "Death Leaves an Echo," a rich story with excellent character development and bewildered (but unflagging) romance. Michael Shiel experiences a terrible car accident, or at least he thinks he does. Upon waking from what might have been a dream, he finds his world unchanged from the day before -- except for the complete nonexistence of his wife. A lengthy story, "Death" is touching on oh so many levels, an unsung hero in de Lint's canon of tales.

Other stories in the fantasy collection include "The Soft Whisper of Midnight Snow," which carries plausible suspense and demonstrates de Lint's love for descriptive text; "Scars," a ghost story with a guide, and a bittersweet reconciliation; "We are Dead Together," which is a less successful, cursory touch on Rom society; and "The Face in the Flames," where the pose meets the reality -- this story screams for more development and, as de Lint admits in his introduction, less of a shambling monster chase.

The contemporary/dark fantasy section also includes "L'esprit de la Belle Mariette," a short, ghostly yarn set in old Quebec with a good idea but no direction; "His City" (written with Robert Tzopa), which strives to connect fantasy and horror to art, but never clicks; and "From a 24" Screen," which crosses the line between reality and television (in the days before Reality TV, mind you) but, again, it never really finds its footing.

The final six stories are in the science fiction (or, as de Lint more sensibly labels them, "science fantasy") genre. This is an area in which de Lint has ventured rarely; his only published novel on the SF racks is the excellent Svaha. Fittingly enough, the best stories in this section of the book are "A Tattoo on Her Heart" and "Raven Sings a Medicine Way, Coyote Steals the Pollen," both of which make similar use of Native American lore in a futuristic setting.

Of the remaining four, two of which are Shift World stories written with Roger Camm, the best I can say is that de Lint, with more practice, might have become a fine science fiction writer -- but I'm really glad he diverted his attentions to contemporary fantasy instead. That said, "The Cost of Shadows" is an absorbing yarn of friendship and assassins -- and I can't say I wouldn't enjoy more in this vein, too.

Once again, de Lint has opened his past to those of us who weren't lucky enough to be along for the ride from the start. While he has certainly exceeded this level of writing many times over with more recent works, it's fascinating to get a closer look at this chapter in his development in the craft. De Lint fans will want this collection without question; newcomers to his work would enjoy some stories, certainly, but would be wise to begin exploring his worlds elsewhere.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 29 January 2005

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